One Woman's Quest for Her Grandmother's Lost Apple Pie Recipe
What she discovered was a lot more than a list of ingredients.
It all started with a memory. Two years ago, Courtney Page Ferrell was contemplating what she would take to her family's annual Thanksgiving dinner in Montpelier, Virginia, and couldn't get an image out of her head. "I had the clearest picture of my grandmother's old pie safe," says Ferrell. "When my sister and I stayed at her house as children, she would wake us up for midnight snacks." The trio would sneak downstairs to the pie safe, a three-shelved wooden cabinet with a glass front and two swinging doors used for storing pies. "Sometimes it was homemade peach or chocolate, but my favorite was her apple. She'd cut a thick slice and top it with PET vanilla ice cream, and I thought there was no better treat in the whole world," she recalls.
Her grandmother, Madge Wickham Page, was a country woman who was soft to hug and easy with a laugh. She could shell a pea and milk a cow better than most and spent her time in the dairy barn or volunteering at the hospital. Determined to honor her grandmother by bringing her apple pie to the holiday dinner, Ferrell sent out requests to family members, hoping one of them would uncover a timeworn recipe card "from the kitchen of Madge Page," bearing her unmistakable handwriting. But no one had it.
One fall afternoon, she spotted a "Lost Dog" sign on a telephone pole in her neighborhood and had an idea. "You can't see a "Lost Dog" sign and not want to help bring that pet home where it belongs," says Ferrell, a creative consultant and sought-after speaker who champions the power of human connections. "I went home, made "Lost Pie" signs, and began hanging them all over Richmond. I thought there was a chance someone in town knew my grandmother, or someone of her generation might have shared a similar recipe. I would know it when I tasted it."
The signs, which read: "Lost: My Grandmother's Apple Pie Recipe," solicited strangers to send their grandmothers' renditions. When Ferrell traveled for work, she posted signs in other cities across the South, from Dallas to New Orleans. Slowly, the letters (addressed to "Apple Pie") trickled in, and Ferrell's walk to the mailbox became one of sweet anticipation.
Each night, she would open the envelopes with her husband, Wortie, and three children, Giles (13), Rosewell (10), and McGill (7), who took turns reading the mail. Ferrell was touched by the number of people who took the time to handwrite their grandmothers' recipes—she received more than 50—but what surprised her most were the stories attached to each of them.
Many shared happy childhood memories, like a Richmond woman who described leafing through her grandmother's 1943 edition of Joy of Cooking. The book had recipe cards tucked into its pages between sheets of wax paper, including one for a double-crust apple pie that was covered with food stains. "Every time Grandma would make pie, with a homemaker's economy, she would press tin animal-shaped cookie cutters into the spare dough, creating small "cookies" that she would dust with cinnamon and sugar and bake for just a few minutes," she wrote.
Other stories went deeper. A woman from Dallas wrote about a grandmother who escaped Germany during World War II, leaving behind everything but a pie recipe tucked in her handbag. It survived a decade of food rations and two transatlantic voyages before the grandmother could afford to buy the necessary ingredients. Ferrell recalls, "This woman wrote that when she bakes the pie, she thinks about the moment when her grandmother could finally make it for her mother and what a treat it must have been to savor. Now she tastes what they tasted, and she's connected to two generations of women who came before her."
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The letters pointed Ferrell to her own kitchen, where she worked her way through the stack of recipes. "Every weekend throughout the fall, my family baked pies," she says. Together, they would peel and core apples, reading each story as they rolled out dough and created buttery cocoons or cinnamon-crumb blankets for piles of sugarcoated apples. The Ferrells even cleared out a kitchen cabinet to make their own version of Madge's pie safe.
One afternoon, while Ferrell watched her children weaving lattice crusts and sneaking peeks through the oven door as pies bubbled and baked, she had a revelation. "I might never find my grandmother's exact pie, but what I discovered was even better. We were creating new memories of apple pie that I hope will remain with us forever."